Excellence Is Fueled By Philosophy

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts, Philosophical Inquiry 8 Comments

Why does philosophy matter? It is a question I think about all the time. I know that some people think it doesn’t really matter that much, if at all. It might be because people think about philosophy in the way it is usually taught, as a long succession of treatises and books – an accumulation of ideas from the past that are difficult to understand and don’t seem to relate much to the life we are living.

Philosophy may sometimes, and perhaps too often, be taught as words in old books, but philosophy itself is the deep contemplation of what it means to be human – at least that is what it means to me.

Even the fact that it could mean anything at all ‘to be human’ is already amazing. Human beings are the one form of life on this planet that are concerned with the meaning of their existence. Dogs don’t worry about what it means to be a dog – neither do cats or mice or polar bears.

One of the reasons that other creatures don’t worry about the meaning of life is that they don’t seem to have any choice about how to live it. Dogs just live the way dogs live. They respond to circumstances the way dogs generally do. Sure they may differ one to the other, but generally speaking they act more or less predictably like dogs.

You may say that doesn’t sound that different than human beings. After all most human beings act more or less predictably like human beings don’t they? And, of course, this is true, but every once in a while something amazing happens – a human being stands out. They don’t live an ordinary life. They live an extraordinary life that is remarkably new and different from the norm. And sometimes these rare human beings discover a way of being that eventually becomes the new norm.

Martin Heidegger recognized that most of us live as ‘the one.’ In other words we do generally what ‘one’ does and are concerned with what ‘one’ tends to be concerned with. In short we live a generic human life. He also realized that there was another possibility – a possibility to live a profoundly authentic and original human life.

Unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, a human being could, if they were heroic enough, choose to live a different kind of human life. Ralph Waldo Emerson called such human beings ‘representative’ because their lives represented new possibilities for being human.

One thing that you will find if you explore it, is that these truly novel and extraordinary people are all philosophers. That doesn’t mean that they know about the historical cannon of philosophical ideas. They may know nothing about philosophy in the academic sense. (Although often they do.)

What they have done is thought deeply for themselves about what it is that makes human life worth living. And they have come to their own conclusions about what is most profound and meaningful about human life and these conclusions guide their choices and fuel their excellence.

Don’t take my word for it. Find out for yourself. Find a truly extraordinary person – someone who charted truly new territory in some field of human endeavor. Not someone of ordinary greatness, but someone of true novelty. Read about them, learn about them, and see if you don’t find that they were a philosopher. Their excellence was a manifestation of the profound conclusions that they had come to about what gives life meaning.

If you want to live an exceptional life, not just one that is more or less predictably human, then philosophy is not a luxury – because only when we find true meaning in life will we be in a position to become an example of true creative excellence.

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Mo Riddiford
8 years ago

What a cogent defense of the practicality of philosophy. Thanks!

Peggy Babcock
Peggy Babcock
8 years ago

A beautiful and true statement, Jeff. The fruits of deep contemplation plus practice, all summed up in one word: excellence. Thank you.

Don Briddell
8 years ago

Why then is philosophy probably the most understudied academic of them all? And why at the street level is philosophy none existent? Given its importance, Jeff, that question is tantamount to the question of meaning itself. Andrew says rich countries have the luxury to consider meaning. In my experience, the richer the country the less likely considerations of meaning will be made. Not talking of academic investigation of meaning, but personal meaning, the kind the average person is dealing with. India, one of the poorest countries per capita, is profoundly philosophical, In that culture, philosophy means religion. In rich countries… Read more »

Frank Luke
8 years ago

There are those who need to make sense and have meaning to their lives and then there are those who are so pre-empted and uncaring to bother their heads with the luxury of philosophical thoughts. Pondering philosophically may not bring happiness but when undertaken and asking questions sincerely and deeply, there should come the light at the end of what may be a dark tunnel that brings the satisfaction of resolving issues that need resolution. Thinking philosophically may not bring happiness but if undertaken sincerely and deeply may furnish answers to questions that must be resolved. Lives not examined lack… Read more »

Kurt Roeloffs
Kurt Roeloffs
8 years ago

Jeff, I love your general point, with which I completely agree, that deep reflection on the nature of being human leads to extraordinary lives. But I have become deeply skeptical that humans are the only life form that considers its own nature and the meaning of its existence. Anthropologists and others have consistently found that their hypothesized distinctions of humans from other life forms fail when there is close observation of life. The tool making, language making and art making hypotheses have all been refuted. Many animals do these things. Humans simply has a distinctive way of doing these things.… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
8 years ago

Hello Kurt, your comments are well taken. I knew writing this that taking the position that there is something special or superior about being human is tricky. As you say it can be motivated be simply an ‘infantile cry or adolescent rebellion.” Let go of these might indeed lead to interesting and beneficial effects. It is also possible that going too far in the other direction may be a way of avoiding the overwhelming responsibility of being a member of the most most dominant life form on this planet.
Love
Jeff

Anonymous
Anonymous
8 years ago

Kurt – your words allowed an immersion into what I have felt in my heart – that we may be conscious enough to “recognize their unique consciousness and our rightful role within nature”

Jeff – agree with your assessment of our “overwhelming responsibility” but doubtful of our superiority.

It seems that responsibility can be acknowledged without any sense of special or superior or dominant.

bigdog1967
8 years ago

Your posts often hit the nail square on the head. Some eventually grow to the point that they are capable of producing fruit. Others frequently see the fruit only as a flesh to be eaten, and once processed, pass it out of their system in the typical fashion. Occasionally the fruit will find nourishment in fertile ground and the seed inside can grow to complete a new cycle…